New ships for Galapagos raise the bar on luxury

The cost of a seven-day cruise in the Galapagos Islands has
for the first time reached the $10,000-per-person threshold as a new class of
deluxe vessels is deployed in the wildlife-rich archipelago.

Leading the way is the Celebrity Flora, soon to emerge from
a Dutch shipyard as the most significant newbuild for the Galapagos in recent
memory. The 100-passenger ship is being designed not just as an exploration
vessel but as a luxury accommodation. It will be followed next year by the Silver Origin, a
Silversea Cruises ship that is intended to be equally, if not more, exclusive.

The vessels are part of an upward spiral of quality and
pricing in the environmentally sensitive Galapagos, where the number of
available berths has been held virtually static by the Ecuadorian government.

“Galapagos tourism is growing at a very fast rate, but
the growth is limited to the island-hopping, hotel- and lodge-based sector,”
said Jonathan Brunger, operations director for Adventure Life, a Missoula,
Mont.-based specialist in Galapagos travel.

“The beds on these ships that are allowed to travel
around the Galapagos, that is not increasing at all,” Brunger said.

In addition, to ensure environmental preservation, vessel
size is capped at 100 passengers.

With demand increasing and supply fixed, market dynamics are
putting upward pressure on cruise prices. 

“The trend isn’t necessarily for a bigger boat; it’s
for the lines to capture that luxury market,” Brunger said. “That’s
the major trend right now.”

The Celebrity Flora fits the luxury bill.

The smallest ship Celebrity has ever built, the Flora will
nevertheless have two restaurants, a pool, two lounges and a pair of
1,300-square-foot penthouse suites. The design resembles that of some of the
more contemporary yachts moored in fancy marinas around the world.

Floor-to-ceiling windows in a glass-wrapped observatory will
supply views of the natural scenery that fascinated Charles Darwin when he made
his historic voyage through the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle.

Celebrity president Lisa Lutoff-Perlo said, “We created
a ship that brings a new level of luxury, sustainability and natural
exploration to the region. Guests will feel as though they’re boarding a
high-end yacht for a week of unparalleled adventures.”

Prevailing prices in the Galapagos for a weeklong cruise
start at around $3,500 per person and range up to about $7,500, a range matched
by the wide variety of vessels, many of them in the 16- to 25-passenger
category.

Lindblad Expeditions operates its 96-passenger Endeavor II
there, with prices for seven-day cruises starting at $7,290.

Another larger ship in the mix is the 90-passenger Santa
Cruz II, operated by Metropolitan Touring, with seven-day prices ranging from
$5,372 to $6,932.

Metropolitan product manager Klaus Fielsch said other cruise
operators in the Galapagos will benefit from the attention the new ships will
bring. 

“Modern vessels like Flora, with new nautical,
environmental and functional concepts, raise the bar for everyone else,”
he said. “This is positive.”

The Flora is scheduled to start sailing the Galapagos on
June 30. Close-in sailings have prices ranging from $7,349 to $10,499. Prices
for 2020 sailings are quoted at an average of $10,600.

Celebrity already has a 100-passenger ship in the Galapagos,
the Celebrity Xpedition, which will be taking on longer itineraries with the
delivery of the Celebrity Flora. The Xpedition will do 11- to 16-day cruises,
some of which will incorporate visits to Quito, Ecuador, or excursions to Machu
Picchu in Peru.

Per diem prices for Xpedition cruises this summer are about
half of what Celebrity is seeking for the Flora.

Two smaller Galapagos ships, the 48-passenger Celebrity
Xperience and the 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration, are being sold.

Similarly, Silversea said its current Galapagos vessel, the
Silver Galapagos, will exit the fleet when the Silver Origin arrives on the
scene in 2020. The Silver Origin will combine nature experiences with a luxury
atmosphere. For example, it will have a bar and a grand piano in the Explorer
Lounge, where the ship’s expedition team will host briefings and lectures.

Brunger said the Galapagos is not a
one-size-fits-all market. 

“The nice thing is people have options among the
different platforms,” he said. “A lot of people contact us, and their
interest is in the smaller boats.”

But while some people prefer the smaller vessels, the range
of amenities on the newbuilds will be compelling.

“The advantage of the bigger boats [is] more deck
space, maybe more autonomy,” Brunger said. “The fact is, these bigger
boats do have very efficient Zodiac loading and unloading.”

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